By directing resources to direct-to-consumer streaming services, sports media launches a parallel growth strategy to its extremely lucrative TV business. It’s a bid to personalize and optimize the watching experience for viewers, who now want and even expect the DTC experience. That’s why Disney and ESPN’s new growth strategy is direct-to-consumer. And that’s why ESPN isn’t unique among the large sports broadcasters either: CBS and NBC will launch a live streaming platform in 2018 and Fox already has one.
It was only a matter of time before the media companies dependent on TV turn to OTT. The difficulty now, of course, is that sports media companies like ESPN, NBC Sports Group, CBS Sports, and Fox Sports can’t afford to trail behind other established DTC or OTT platforms. They need to lead the innovation of direct to consumer and OTT. And we know some may have the resources to do so: Disney bought BAMTech for $3.75bn to lead innovation in OTT.
By all measures, the US lags behind Asia when it comes to innovative streaming engagement strategies. And, really, many of the current strategies are in their infancy. This article will nevertheless lay out the current ways to increase viewing minutes and the number of sessions in digital sports media.
A word about sports media’s fragmentation
It’s time to reassemble the pieces. Actually take your separate digital channels and fuse them together.
So many sports apps, media channels, and technologies exist for viewing or second-screening a sporting event. It’s dizzying. Even two years ago, research showed that that mobile users spent most of their time (84%) in about 5 non-native apps. And how many of those slots are now already taken up by Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, SnapChat and so on? After the surge in app growth, decision fatigue abounds. It’s no surprise that consumers, faced with 2.8 million apps at Google Play and 2.2 million at Apple’s App store (as of March 2017), choose to stay consistent with about 5.
How do you become one of those 5 apps?
Start by reducing decision fatigue by aggregating your apps together. Is there really a good reason to have, for example, NFL Mobile and NFL Watch Network (for Tablet) separate from NFL Fantasy? Search “best fantasy football apps” in Google and apparently you’ll have to get 5, 6, or 7 more apps to dominate your fantasy league, depending on which article you read. All told, if you second-screen the NFL and play Fantasy Football while watching the game on TV, you’re apparently supposed to use up to 9 apps. Why?
Look to tech for a moment. The rise of UX (user experience) tries to achieve an ideal state where there’s zero friction in all flows of action within and between applications, websites, or other UIs. Essentially, UX designers advocate for the customer’s experience among the product stakeholders. It’s yet another important manifestation of DTC’s obsession with the customer and optimizing their experience with the support of data. BAMTech Media, the sports streaming solution arm of Disney and ESPN, for example, has at least several employees dedicated to UX.
One way to reduce friction between apps is to unify them. If sports leagues and sports media aggregate their digital assets, there will be less friction between Fantasy sports, sports games, news or statistics. Sports media could reduce friction, for example, between the game and social elements, improving the ease of posting to social media without losing the user’s engagement or losing them to Facebook Messenger, Twitter, etc.
Direct-to-consumer streaming services and live sports will compete with tech within the next 5 years
It’s no surprise that Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and YouTube are chasing after rights to broadcast live sports. At first, it seems like a rather weak foray into sports:
- Twitter had a hiccough in Thursday Night Football, gaining rights instead to broadcast some exclusive sports news and analysis
- Twitter’s initial broadcasting rights for the National Lacrosse League, some MLB and NHL may seem niche or small
- Facebook sports stadium had a pretty epic failure at the Super Bowl in 2016
But actually there’s a lot of success there, too. YouTube TV is making a huge push for its $35/month subscription and it is starting by streaming the World Series for free. And actually Twitter lost Thursday Night Football, sure, but to Amazon. In the meantime, Twitter also gained rights to exclusive NFL content.
Let there be no mistake. Tech companies didn’t create a mythology around “fail fast” without reason. I’m not sure how often tech companies actually fail. But I am familiar with A/B testing, large data sets, and using “failed” experiences to inform more fully optimized solutions. And by initially streaming sports here and there, they’re building their first data sets for the viewing behaviors of sports fans. All these apparent failures will make their streaming platforms even more compelling experiences. If sports media ever had a threat looming, it’s this.
Why bring this up? Admittedly, it’s not a solution. But I want to impress upon sports media decision makers that they must create channels where there’s direct access to the consumer and data about their behaviors. This will produce the metadata necessary to create actionable strategies for increasing engagement and personalizing the viewing and advertising experience. Tech companies have already been doing this for a long time, so it won’t be enough to just create a single direct-to-consumer streaming channel or move to streaming some sports content not broadcasted elsewhere. Sports media is in danger of lagging behind Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Goliaths to be sure.
User attention span is not a problem to be solved. It’s more like a symptom of our technological history. We’re in a highly competitive attention market and it will only get more competitive. Given current data, just assume attention is short and do more to keep your viewer engaged. With DTC and the sheer quantity of channels to pay attention to, the burden of the sports fan’s attention is now borne by the sports media company. So what to do?
Interact live with your viewers
Direct-to-consumer live sports means what it says. You can be in direct contact with your consumer. So why miss the opportunity to interact with them? This is the number one proactive engagement strategy. Viewers are watching more and more live video content and sports has always been a leader here. If you’re not interacting with your live sports viewers, then you’re missing out on engagement opportunities.
Real-time chat complements live video so well because it gives you a direct channel to communicate with your users. People often describe digesting data metaphorically as “listening” to your user. Chat is one step closer to literally listening to your viewers. Now you can see what your users say in between plays or during exciting game-time moments with chat metadata.
Here are 5 ways to use live chat to engage your user:
- Create that social or in-stadium (in-sports bar) experience by allowing your users to chat with each other about the game.
- Allow celebrities, players, analysts, or experts discuss the game with people in a moderated chat or messaging system
- Remember when the baseball Jumbotron aired a shell-game with 3 baseball caps and a baseball? Fans screaming for their chosen hat color. I loved that.
- Create quick value-add games that will keep your online viewers engaged.
- Poll, ask questions, or prompt viewers to make a money-less wager on the next outcome. Or, if you’re Delaware, Montana, Nevada, or Oregon, where sports betting is legal, you could incorporate it.
- Be able to click and highlight the text of a message and post it to Twitter or Facebook.
Customer Case: Nexon – live eSports broadcast and real-time chat
Nexon is one of the largest gaming companies in the world. They partnered with SendBird to implement live chat during e-sports broadcasts of FIFA Online 3, Counterstrike, and Kartrider. During one session of FIFA Online 3, Nexon hosted an audience in the 10s of thousands and increased its session length by 50%. How?
Nexon integrated real-time, massive chat into their live video stream and took it one step further by creating an interactive game for the chat channel. It engaged fans and generated palpable excitement during the live event. Nexon intermittently offered tokens to fans over the course of the broadcast. Fans responded in the chat interface and received in-game currency by collecting a majority of the tokens. This creative solution had a significant impact on fan interaction by going beyond simple chat. It encouraged viewers to watch more actively and for longer.
Nexon took the extra step to ensure that live chat engaged viewers in a way unqiue to it. They took real-time conversational exchange and “monetized” it by offering viewers in-game currency in exchange for their attention in real-time. The audience reciprocated with +50% overall engagement.
Add closed-captioning to live video
Closed-captioning might not seem particularly exciting. But it is. There are compelling reasons to use it:
- Accessibility – Approximately 5% of the world’s population are persons with significant hearing loss. Accessibility not only helps live video become accessible to all people, but it’s also good business.
- Viewing the video soundlessly – This increases the number of situations in which your user can understand the video and audio synchronously. Think college student watching their team play a rival while “studying in the library” or “listening to a lecture.” Or broadcasting a video at a sports bar, where it’s too loud or disruptive to play the sound. Or that classic situational comedy bit where a sports fan is watching the game at a wedding or a funeral. While this last part is a joke, you can see how CC can expand reach.
Use data to personalize recommendations for each viewer
YouTube famously does this. If you’re not already clicking on another video to watch, then YouTube will automatically launch into the next video after 15 seconds or recommend videos on the sidebar. If a user wants to watch videos about “mutton busting,” for example, he or she might be enticed by a video’s clever title in the sidebar and click it: “Lamb chopped: Mutton busting tiny tots show fierce character.” Sounds compelling. YouTube will probably just play it for their user after their current video.
Don’t waste an opportunity to keep your viewers engaged. Give them the option to watch more, or, like YouTube, don’t give them the option.
Social media…in moderation
Social media is great because its reach is enormous and sports fans are avid users. Out of Facebook’s 1.5 billion users in 2016, 650 million users were sports fans. But when fans actually watch a sporting event, they use Twitter and Facebook equally (5.6x and 5.8x per game, respectively) because both tap into real-time news. But, unlike chat, both remove fans or viewers from your app ecosystem.
Connect your viewer’s social media accounts to your sports events, but do so in moderation because you don’t want to redirect viewer attention to the super dense blackhole that is social media. The overlap of users between social media and sports is so great that social media is very naturally turning to streaming sports content. Balance must be achieved. Allow users to post, for example, to Twitter in your app with an API. This may encourage them to stay in-app.
I think specifically of a “click-to-tweet” equivalent for direct-to-consumer streaming and live sports. That way, sports fans can capture video, type a quick message, and Tweet to their friends and family without leaving the sports streaming eco-system. At the same time, they’ve marketed your brand favorably to others.
Split-screen video inside your mobile and web app
ESPN advertises one-tap access to live video. And it’s true that once you enter the app, tap the video icon in the bottom right corner, that you can tap on a stream and begin watching. But it doesn’t quite have the relevance that Amazon’s “one-click” buying might–when you typically have to login, add an item to your cart, go to the cart, checkout, enter in your credit card information, enter your shipping, etc. And for ESPN you still need to go to settings and use the TV Everywhere interface to login to your WatchESPN provider.
ESPN has a great live video experience anyway. You can split screen the current live stream, while reading news or looking at other aspects of the game. And all it takes is a swipe to exit, minimize or maximize the video. This alleviates the need to second-screen a great deal and intelligently empowers mobile viewing by allowing open access to content during the live video.
Use “likes” and sharing for clips
The advent of amateur live video has created many opportunities for broadcasters to monetize or allow audiences to send virtual gifts or likes to broadcasters. Periscope allows viewers to purchase Super Hearts to send to broadcasters, who can redeem them for a monthly pay out. YouTube allows viewers to purchase a Super Chat that users can send to the chat stream or pin. Like Super Hearts, the Super Chat generates revenue for the broadcaster.
While using something like a “Super Chat” is a possibility for large sports broadcasters, it might not be as appropriate as it is for amateur live broadcasters. But it does speak to how imbricated likes, hearts, comments, and chats are in the fabric of video content. Allow your users to like your video and share it with others within your app. This will give the added bonus of providing data about successful videos and create a virtuous cycle for popular clips.
There are a lot of streaming solutions out there from Brightcove and BAMTech Media to Ooyala and Kaltura. They offer platforms that integrate publishing and editing tools, syndication control, with analytics and auto-clipping, among other features, to help you monetize your video. They can be great solutions for moving some of your TV content to OTT and DTC, or expanding to new content online. SaaS (Software as a Service) offers enterprise companies a lot of options.
There’s a lot of discussion circulating around Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) for video.
Facebook launched 360 video and claims it is a natural fit for sports, as well as current VR technology. My favorite video so far is from the World Surf League. Watching the textured reef pass below the surfer while a wave like a scintillating mirror curls neatly around him is pretty stunning. This technology works well for solitary sports, where teams aren’t crashing around each other.
There are still limitations. In the boxing video between Deontay Wilder and Artur Szpilka, for example, the camera attahces to a corner of the ring, giving us only 90 degrees of ringside footage and 270 degrees of audience. The technology is currently limited by its immobility and inability to be “in the action.”
Still, this is not exclusively VR, though it has an effective VR application. Would VR isolate viewers from their co-spectators and eliminate the social aspect of sports? Will the technological novelty win over the isolation? It so far reminds me of stereoscope, invented in the 19th century, which produced a three-dimensional image. How commerical will VR’s application be, if it isolates us from each other?
AR might have more applications as an interface that could connect the user to more information, like in-game statistics, news, or other content. This would be exciting for live games, but less applicable to sport streaming solutions.
Engaging your viewer beyond sports streaming
No matter what tactic or technology your product uses to engage its users, it will be a necessity. Since sports streaming will likely compete with Tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, it needs to go beyond DTC as a “growth strategy” and leverage new ways to engage viewers to achieve growth.